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  • Writer's pictureEssence Marsh

What exactly is sensory play and its benefits?

Sensory play might seem like just one more thing to add to the endless list of parenting "must-dos." But if you're wondering, "What is sensory play and its benefits?" let me tell you, it's not just another fad. It's actually a super cool part of growing up that's both fun for you and a blast for your kiddos. For those of you asking, "How does sensory play help child development?" or on the hunt for "Ideas for sensory play activities at home," you've hit the jackpot with this guide. Dive into the wonderfully squishy, gloriously messy, and rainbow-colored world of sensory play with us. From squishing playdough to splashing in puddles, or discovering all sorts of textures and sounds, sensory play is all about touching, feeling, and exploring in ways that spark little brains and big imaginations. So, let's roll up our sleeves and find out all the awesome ways it helps our kids grow and learn about the world around them, one sensory experience at a time.

The Basics of Sensory Play


 What is Sensory Play?


At its core, sensory play is any activity that engages a child's senses. This includes touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight, and hearing. From the texture of sand slipping through fingers to the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, sensory activities provide raw stimuli that help children make sense of the world.


Engaging Different Senses


Each sensory activity engages different senses, which is key to developing a wide range of skills. For example, playing with scented playdough can stimulate smell and touch, while a game of "I Spy" can enhance sight and cognitive skills. The variety is what makes sensory play so effective and endlessly interesting to kids.


Cognitive Benefits


Brain Development


Sensory play is like a workout for the brain. It encourages neural pathways to expand and connect, fostering cognitive growth. Activities that require sorting, matching, or classifying objects help develop problem-solving skills and an understanding of cause and effect.


Physical Development


Fine and Gross Motor Skills


Sensory activities often involve actions like scooping, pouring, or threading, which refine fine motor skills. On the other hand, activities like crawling through tunnels or jumping on a trampoline enhance gross motor skills by improving balance, strength, and spatial awareness.


Emotional and Social Growth


Understanding Emotions and Social Interaction


Sensory play can also be a safe space for children to explore and express their emotions. Group activities encourage sharing, turn-taking, and empathy, laying the foundation for healthy social interactions. For instance, working together on a sensory bin can teach kids about cooperation and understanding different perspectives.


Language Skills


Supporting Language Development


As children describe their sensory experiences, they learn new words and ways to communicate their thoughts and feelings. This descriptive language and enhanced communication are critical components of language development.

Creativity and Exploration


 Encouraging Creativity


Sensory play is inherently open-ended, providing a canvas for creativity and exploration. It allows children to use their imagination, think innovatively, and see the world in new ways. Whether it's creating a masterpiece with finger paints or imagining a new world in the sandbox, sensory play fosters a sense of wonder and creativity.


Setting Up Sensory Play at Home


 Practical Tips for Parents


Incorporating sensory play at home doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. Here are a few tips:

- Use household items like rice, pasta, or beans to create a sensory bin.

- Encourage outdoor play to explore natural textures and sounds.

- Dedicate a space for messy play, and don't shy away from a little clean-up.

- Follow your child's lead and interests to make sensory play engaging and fun.


Some Ideas

These sensory play ideas are not only beneficial for sensory development but also foster creativity, imagination, and an understanding of the world. By incorporating these activities into playtime, parents and educators can provide rich, developmental experiences that cater to a wide range of learning styles and interests.


1. DIY Sensory Bags

   - Details: Sensory bags are easy to make and can be customized with various textures and items. Fill a sturdy, sealable plastic bag with items like hair gel, water beads, or even just water and food coloring. Add marbles, glitter, small toys, or foam shapes for added interest.


- Examples: Create a "sea exploration" bag with blue gel and small fish toys, or a "space adventure" bag with black hair gel, glitter, and star-shaped confetti.


2. Nature Sensory Box

- Details: Utilize a large container and fill it with natural items from your garden or a nearby park. Include items like sand, pebbles, leaves, twigs, and pinecones. Add tools such as magnifying glasses, tweezers, and cups for exploration and play.

- Examples: For a beach-themed box, mix sand, shells, and small rocks. Provide small buckets and shovels for digging and building.


3. Edible Mud Play

- Details: Safe for even the youngest children, edible mud can be made from ingredients like cocoa powder and flour mixed with water. It's perfect for messy play and can be used with animal figurines for a mud bath or with cookie cutters for mud shapes.

- Examples: Create a "dinosaur park" with edible mud and various dinosaur toys, allowing kids to make footprints or "fossil" impressions with the figures.


4. Scented Playdough

- Details: Homemade playdough can be enhanced with food extracts, essential oils, or spices for a sensory smell experience. Different colors can be added with food coloring or natural dyes like beet juice or turmeric.

- Examples: Make a batch of cinnamon-scented playdough for a warm, comforting smell, or lemon-scented playdough for a fresh, energizing aroma.


5. Sound Bottles

- Details: Fill small, sealable bottles with a variety of materials that produce different sounds. Use rice, beans, water, beads, and more. Children can shake the bottles to explore the sounds and even try to match pairs by sound alone.

- Examples: Create a set of sound bottles with varying levels of water for a lesson in pitch, or fill bottles with different grains (rice, lentils, quinoa) to compare sounds.

6. Ice Exploration

- Details: Freeze small toys, colored water, or edible items like fruit in ice cube trays or larger containers. Once frozen, children can explore these ice blocks by touching, melting them with warm water, or using salt to speed up the melting process. This activity is great for sensory exploration and learning about temperature and states of matter.

- Examples: Freeze small dinosaur toys in ice for a "prehistoric ice excavation" or create rainbow ice blocks with different colored layers for visual and tactile exploration.


7. Texture Walk

- Details: Create a path or mat with different textures for children to walk on barefoot. Use materials like bubble wrap, fabric, foam mats, sandpaper, and grass. This activity stimulates the sense of touch and can be particularly enjoyable for young children learning to distinguish between different textures.

- Examples: A sensory path in the backyard with sections of grass, sand, smooth stones, and a water puddle for a varied tactile experience.


8. Homemade Musical Instruments

- Details: Use household items to create simple musical instruments. Fill containers with different materials to make shakers, stretch rubber bands over boxes to create string instruments, or turn pots and pans into drums. This activity encourages auditory exploration and can introduce concepts of rhythm and music.

- Examples: A rice shaker made from a plastic bottle, a drum set created from various sized pots and pans, and a guitar fashioned from a shoebox and rubber bands.


9. Scented Water Play

- Details: Add scents to water play by infusing the water with spices, extracts, or essential oils. This can be done in a water table, a basin, or even during bath time. Adding colored water with food coloring or natural dyes enhances the visual experience.

-Examples: Lavender-scented water for a calming play session or citrus-scented water with orange and lemon slices for a refreshing and invigorating activity.


10. Shadow Play

   - Details: Use a flashlight or sunlight through a window to create shadows with hands, toys, or other objects. This activity encourages visual tracking and creativity, as children can experiment with making different shapes and stories with their shadows. It's also a fantastic way to introduce early physics concepts like light and shadows.

   - Examples: Hand puppet shows against a wall or making shadow figures of animals and trying to guess what they are.



Sensory play is more than just child's play; it's a crucial part of development that supports cognitive growth, physical skills, emotional understanding, and so much more. By integrating sensory activities into our children's daily routines, we can provide them with the tools they need to explore, learn, and grow. So, let's roll up our sleeves, get a little messy, and watch our kids thrive through the power of sensory play.



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